Aristides Aquino Is Punishing Baseballs

Unless you’re a die-hard Reds fan, you probably hadn’t heard of Aristides Aquino before this month. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound right fielder been part of Cincinnati’s system since being signed out of the Dominican Republic in January 2011, but his overly aggressive approach at the plate offset his considerable raw power and limited his attractiveness as a prospect, particularly as he aged. He entered this season, his age-25 campaign, with one major league plate appearance to his name, but the combination of an overhauled swing, a 28-homer showing at Triple-A Louisville, and the July 31 trade of Yasiel Puig led to his promotion to the majors, and since then, “The Punisher” has clubbed his way into the record books.

Aquino joined the Reds for a four-game series in Atlanta at the start of August, and after going 0-for-6 with three strikeouts in his first two games, went 2-for-2 with a walk against former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel on August 3. After singling off Keuchel in the second inning for his first hit, he walked in the fifth and then hit a game-tying three-run homer in the seventh, though the Reds lost 5-4. He then reeled off a nine-game hitting streak, keeping it alive with a pinch-single on August 4. He homered off the the Angels’ Jose Suarez on August 6 in Cincinnati as part of his first three-hit game, then went yard in each of the first three games of a four-game series against the Cubs, dinging Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish in back-to-back contests. On August 10, he launched three homers, two off Kyle Hendricks and one off Dillon Maples, then added yet another homer on Monday night against the Nationals’ Tanner Rainey. His hitting streak came to an end with an 0-for-4 showing on Tuesday, though he did make some contact. Through 42 plate appearances, he’s put up video game numbers: .385/.429/1.026 for a 267 wRC+.

Aquino’s hat trick came in just his 10th major league game, tying the Phillies’ Bobby Estallela (September 4, 1997 versus the Expos) for the quickest in a major league career. Here’s his trio of homers:

With home run number eight, his shot off Rainey, Aquino had hit more dingers than any player in his first 12 games:

Most Home Runs in First 12 MLB Games
Rk Player Team Season HR
1 Aristides Aquino Reds 2018-19 8
2T Yordan Alvarez Astros 2019 7
2T Trevor Story Rockies 2016 7
2T Dino Restelli Pirates 1949 7
2T Trey Mancini Orioles 2016-17 7
6T Taylor Teagarden Rangers 2008 6
6T Rhys Hoskins Phillies 2017 6
6T Carlos Delgado Blue Jays 1994 6
6T Curt Blefary Orioles 1965 6
6T Pete Alonso Mets 2019 6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Three of the top 10 early-career bursts have happened in 2019, which figures given that this year is producing homers at a greater frequency than ever. Teams are averaging 1.40 homers per game, 0.14 higher than in 2017, the previous record year, and 0.04 higher than when I checked in on June 27 to declare “Too Many Homers.” Two more of the above sluggers hail from the aforementioned 2017 season. The list of 15 players just missing the cutoff, with five homers in their first 12 games, includes both Cody Bellinger (2017) and Austin Riley (this season), not to mention the a motley assortment of familiar names such as Chris Davis (2008), J.D. Drew (1998), Jeff Francoeur (2005), Gary Gaetti (1981-82), Evan Gattis (2013), Josh Hamilton (2007), Sam Horn (1987), and Graig Nettles (1968). All of which is to say that appearing on this list doesn’t necessarily portend stardom or even long-term success at the major league level, but it’s a fun group.

Aquino’s not just wall-scraping his way onto this list, either. Just one of his eight homers (his first off Hendricks) was estimated to travel less than 373 feet; five of his eight were projected for 404 feet or more, with three for 445 feet or more, capped by his 452-footer off Maples. His average home run distance of 410 feet puts him in the 84th percentile of all players with at least eight homers, and he’s one of just 22 with at least three homers of 445 feet or longer; Ronald Acuña Jr. leads with seven, followed by Josh Bell with six, and Alonso, Story, Bryce Harper, Jorge Soler, and Mike Trout with five — all in considerably more playing time. Aquino’s 445-footer off Hamels featured an exit velocity of 118.3 mph, matching Alonso’s April 11 homer off the Braves’ Jonny Venters for the fastest of the year; it’s the ninth-fastest of the Statcast era, with Giancarlo Stanton (121.7 mph on August 9, 2018) the record holder and Alonso, Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez the only other players to reach 118 mph at least once. That’s good company.

Overall, Aquino is averaging a 91.3 mph exit velocity, which would put him in the 89th percentile, a 15.4-degree launch angle, and a .488 xwOBA, which is off the charts (Trout leads the majors at .460). He’s hit groundballs on just 22.2% of his balls in play, and struck out in 28.6% of his plate appearances while walking in 7.1%, a ratio not dissimilar from what he was doing in Triple-A. That, as well as his 43.3% rate of swinging at pitches outside the zone, hints at the potential for pitchers to exploit his aggressiveness, though it should be noted that his stats are a long way from the point of stabilization.

All of this is from a player who not only has never cracked any major Top 100 Prospects lists, but didn’t even make FanGraphs’ 33-deep list of Reds’ top prospects in December, though he did qualify as an honorable mention under the “Huge Power, Tough Defensive Profile” banner. He’s still not among the team’s top 30 on MLB Pipleline (where he would qualify until his rookie status is exhausted), though Baseball America had him 21st on the Reds’ list in The Prospect Handbook 2019. He placed as high as fourth on FanGraphs’ Reds list (and seventh on BA’s list) in 2017, at which point he was coming off his best minor league season by the numbers (.273/.327/.519, 143 wRC+ with 23 homers, 12 triples, and 11 steals at High-A Daytona); that year, he was the pitcher-friendly Florida State League’s Player of the Year. On our list, he was considered a 50 FV prospect, nestled between Jesse Winker and Shed Long, and ahead of Taylor Trammell and Luis Castillo (both 45 at the time).

Aquino’s stock took a tumble, however, as he hit .216/.282/.397 (93 wRC+) with 17 homers and 145 strikeouts (28.8%) at Double-A Pensacola in 2017, his age-23 season. He slipped to 19th on the Reds’ list, his grade down to a 40 FV, with Eric Longenhagen bemoaning his “indiscriminate approach,” difficulty recognizing offspeed stuff, lack of on-base ability, and “feckless swings.” He fared somewhat better repeating the level in 2018 (.240/.306/.448, 20 HR, 25.2% K), and spent a week with the Reds, but struck out in his lone plate appearance, on August 19. After being nontendered and then re-signing with Cincinnati, he was downgraded again to a 35+ FV this spring; as a 25-year-old who’d never seen a pitch in Triple-A, he seemed a fringe guy at best.

Aquino’s strong showing at Louisville (.299/.356/.636, 143 wRC+ with 28 homers and a 25.1% K rate) owes more to the changes in his swing than to the rabbit ball. As The Athletic’s C. Trent Rosecrans wrote recently, he worked with Reds assistant hitting coach Donnie Ecker and Latin America field coordinator Joel Noboa.

The most visible change they made was to Aquino’s stance. He now starts at the plate wide open, with almost his entire body facing the pitcher, his front (left) foot near the outside line of the right-handed batter’s box. While the pitcher goes through his motion, Aquino moves into a more traditional position. It’s something they experimented with in spring training, and Aquino got comfortable with it throughout the year.

…For Ecker, it’s all about getting Aquino’s bat in the zone as long as possible and making the most efficient moves toward the ball that he can.

…Aquino said he used to hunch more and his shoulders would move down toward the ball. He’s now more fluid through the zone, with his bat taking an upward cut, keeping it in the hitting zone longer.

Via’s Mike Petriello, the side-by-side comparison of his pre-2019 swing and his current one is night and day:

Here’s video of Aquino taken by Longenhagen in 2017, viewed from the first base side:

Here’s a minor league plate appearance from last year, in which Aquino pokes an RBI double (pardon the slightly compressed aspect ratio):

And, to bring back another reminder of his current swing, here’s the aforementioned homer off Suarez:

Very different, no? The stance looks strange, but the philosophy about uppercutting and keeping the bat in the zone as long as possible is something we’ve heard time and again regarding players tweaking their swings in the era of the launch angle, and clearly it’s working for him. As to whether he can keep it up, well, nobody’s going to slug 1.026 while homering at that clip, but it’s probably safe to eye his .234/.284/.457 depth charts projection with skepticism, too. With Puig out of the the picture, the right field job is his for the foreseeable future, and it’s worth noting that he’s considered to have at least a plus arm — Petriello noted that he had a throw tracked at an MLB-high 101.5 mph this year — and while Baseball America called his speed below average in the recent Handbook, he’s in the 83rd percentile in terms of Statcast’s Sprint Speed metric. Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel recently re-graded him as a 45 FV, a low-end regular.

Sizzling numbers across 42 plate appearances (or 43, including last year) is no guaranteed indicator for a player’s future, even with a record barrage of homers, but as the Reds look to next year — at 56-62, they’re six games under .500, in need of a Mets-like hot streak to stay relevant to this year’s races — they just may have found a keeper.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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4 years ago

I love seeing absurdly hot streaks like this one; as of this morning his wRC+ on the year is 258. Then I like to go to Bonds’ page and wonder at that 244 wRC+ he put up over the entire 2001 season. As a streak this is silly, and i’m enjoying it. Over a full season, even though I can see the numbers, it still registers as somewhat unbelievable. But I don’t mean to detract too much from Aquino streak or Jaffe’s writing. Both are super great!